Movie Review – Half Nelson (2006)
by RISHI AGRAWAL
I remember when I was still a teenager, it was difficult to imagine that teachers had their own lives. Of course, rationally, you knew it was true, but there was something otherworldly about them. Perhaps that’s why the premise of Half Nelson seemed odd to me. Daniel Dunn (Ryan Gosling) is a junior high history teacher and basketball coach who is addicted to crack. That part of the premise was not so hard to believe. What is a little more unbelievable is the fact that he forms a friendship with Drey (Shareeka Epps), one of his students and players.
Dunn is one of those rich characters that so many actors want to portray. He has a good rapport with the students, and you can tell he has the potential to be an inspiring teacher. In his personal life, other than the crack addiction, Dunn is also dealing with a nonexistent love life and an unpredictable temper. Ryan Gosling embodies this character so fully, and really delivers on all the aspects of Dunn’s personality. With all due respect to Forest Whitaker and Sacha Baron Cohen, this is easily my favorite male performance of 2006.
Though Gosling’s performance saves the film, the problem with Half Nelson is that it meanders. The characters don’t seem to have any goals or aspirations and so we have a sense that the film goes nowhere. Dunn is not actively trying to kick his addiction, and though he does try to rectify his loneliness during the film, it doesn’t strike me as the central plotline. The meandering film is tough to do convincingly. It is not very interesting to watch characters who don’t change, or change so subtly that it is almost imperceptible.
We do not get much of a sense of Drey’s motivation either. We know quite a bit about her character, but it is unclear what really drives her. We really have no idea why she befriends Dunn or why she cares about anything. There is only one scene where we see any kind of fire from Drey, when she goes to recover a stolen bike. This scene is brilliant, but there is little else for us to see what separates her from the standard apathetic teenager.
Dunn’s friendship with Drey is an interesting one. Though Dunn is the “authority figure” in the relationship, Drey seems to have more of a moral center and a sense of right and wrong. Despite her age (thirteen), she has a fairly firm grasp of the difference between right and wrong. Drey serves as an unusual moral compass for Dunn. Though she does not proselytize and try to tell Dunn what he should do, he learns these lessons by trying to teach her about morality. What Drey ultimately gets out of this relationship is unclear.
The actors make sure that the film is not completely pointless – lesser actors could have made the movie unwatchable. What we end up with instead is a subtle, character-driven movie without much of a sense of forward motion.